Saturday, November 20, 2010

How local is a local church?

How close is a "local" church? What is the relative role of proximity in determining church membership? (Not just descriptively, but normatively: i.e. what should it be?) How much commuting is it reasonable or responsible to encourage and model?

Since being baptised, I've been a member of four different churches and each was within walking distance of my residence at the time (this doesn't mean I have always walked every week). My most frustrating experience of fellowship was (unsurprisingly) when this distance was greatest, making hospitality and mid-week meetings much more difficult.

What are the difficulties that arise with integrating members from further afield? What experiences, insights or prophetic words do readers have on this topic? Has anyone ever encouraged a fellow congregation member (or prospective member) to find a church closer to home? (Or a home closer to church?) Do any churches have centrally organised car-pooling? Is anyone part of a congregation where more than half your members walk to church?
Image by JKS of me preaching in a church (through an interpreter) where 100% of the members walk.


Donna said...

I'm loving your Indian photos :-)

By the way, there is one motorcycle ridden to that church these days, and a few bicycles...

Stuart Heath said...

I think it depends how you define your church. If your church is almost entirely defined by attendance at a weekly event (with whatever your tradition holds dearest — singing, sacraments, sermon), then people can live a long way away and still commute to that event. But if it consists in a community to belong to, not just an event to attend — if it's a network of loving relationships (where we love one another and together love others) — then suddenly geography becomes important.

Because however much we might have become a commuter culture and whatever communication technology we have, there's a limited number of ways I can love at a distance. And while I might meet lots of people from all over Sydney through my work in the city, I'm still more likely to become friends with those who live near me, because proximity allows us more easily to develop more facets to our relationship.

It depends where you live, too. If you live in a smallish town, it's easier to develop these variegated relationships, and you can perhaps maintain more of them. In the city, it's harder.

As for how local is local, in our church we've tried to solve the problem by observing patterns within broader society. We think the Inner West is a region: most people aren't bound by a particular suburb, but we are bound by a number of major roads. Living in Leichhardt, I will happily go to a café or restaurant in Haberfield, Ashfield, Petersham, Newtown, or Balmain. If I really have to, I'll go shopping or to the movies in Burwood. But I'm not likely to go further south than Marrickville, nor cross the river to the north. So that's how we've defined local.

(Another rule of thumb might be that you're close enough to pop in to one another's houses for a cup of tea — you haven't travelled so far that you need a meal.)

If you lived outside that area and wanted to join our church, it'd have to be because a significant number of your relationships were here (say, because of family or work). But then we'd most likely encourage you to move in (and help with rent if necessary). Although we do have events that someone could theoretically commute to, we don't have a single event which defines our membership; we just have a web of relationships.

Anonymous said...

I think if your four year old asks every time you are only half way to church "When are we going to get there mum?!" you are going too far. I think when your husband is away and you feel very prayed for but no one can come and look after your kids while you duck up to the shops you are commuting too far. I think when you don't bother asking your children's peers to come to church with you because it feels embarrassing how far you drive then you are driving too far.
So yes we have a problem... though still no solution : (

Anthony Douglas said...

I'll just fly my red flag about the question.

The local church is comprised of everyone who is there. There is no distance involved, because they're in the same space!

There's a real danger in allowing proximity a normative role, because all too soon you find yourself speaking about the local church but meaning the locale church, and then you've got no defense against misguided ecumenicism...

byron smith said...

Donna - Glad you like them. :-) Shows how long it can often be between taking a photo and having it appear on the blog. I had a suspicion that there might have been a couple of bikes at the church, but wasn't sure.

Stuart - Excellent reflections. I entirely agree that one's ecclesiology is crucial here. My own is heavily influenced by the concept of family, which I think is the most frequent NT image (if you consider the ubiquity of the term adelphoi (brothers/sisters) as a manner of address). And so this leads me to an understanding similar to yours: that church is primarily a community of relationships of a certain character (i.e. "in Christ"), and that those relationships are strongest when most regularly expressed through physical presence, so I don't rule out the possibility of virtual Christian fellowship, but nor is it equal. Interesting observations about the "boundaries" of the mental inner west. I wonder whether others can identify similar patterns (esp in suburbs with high levels of commuters).

I like your rule of thumb about the tea vs meal (and I love the suggestions from anonymous, which are all excellent answers to this question. Is this an anonymous who is related to me or another anonymous?).

Anthony - So are you rejecting Stuart's ecclesiology and suggesting that the church only exists as gathering? Can you say more about the difference between the local and the locale church?

Anonymous said...

At my church, we recently lost a disgruntled member. He didn't like the music and the children's talks. He'd come to this church from the one (literally) 3 doors down from his home. He hadn't liked the music and the kids songs there. So, he thought he'd drive the hour to our church because he thought he'd get something different.

After a few years, he's gone now... to another church an hour's drive from his home.

Whenever he spoke about children's songs and the music and the style of the service, he saw himself as a modern-day Luther. He was defending true worship.

Of course, this raises all sorts of questions about the nature of 'worship' and ecclesiology. However, my suspicion is that it wasn't that deep. I wonder if we HAD to be with our local(e) church whether it might help us to love and to find a whole host of other Christian virtues that individualism steals from us.

Anonymous said...

on a quick count, i think we had 28 adults at our service last week (plus one child and two dogs). i think eight people came by car (in a total of five cars), one by bike, one by electric wheelchair and one by stroller. I'm not sure about the other congregations of our church, but i would hazard a guess that about half would walk or ride a bike. the morning service has had a couple of 'ride your bike to church' days, with bacon and eggs on the BBQ for those who got there early enough.

besideourselves said...

I'm inclined to think that proximity should play something of a normative role.

I rather think that we would do more to define ourselves as Christians both existentially and communally by how we deal with genuine differences - incorporating and turning them to the advantage of The Body than by continued partisan churchianity.

I would sooner run the risk that a proximal ecumenism could become misguided than to claim the defeat of continued schism as some kind of victory over other Christian's errors.

A transportation crisis might in this sense be a boon for the Church. Perhaps then the local liturgical expression might bear some resemblance to the vital community of faith, that "web of relationships" which is worthily called the Body of Christ.

byron smith said...

Joel (jm) - Some interesting stats. What was the goal of the "ride your bike to work day"? How (using what concepts or referents) was it promoted to congregation members?

Besideourselves - A transportation crisis could be a boon were we in the right mindset to accept it and grow through it, though it is likely to be accompanied by crises of other kinds that could make the picture considerably more complex and which I fear could prove more challenging for us to accept as a chance to mature. I hope my fears are proven unfounded.

besideourselves said...

No doubt the Head is prepared for any contingency; on that basis alone I've got a good deal of confidence in the Body to pull through ... maybe not the 'visible' body though....

And I spoke of a transportation crisis simply because I fear that maturity is unlikely to arrive at any point before then. Hopefully both our fears are unfounded!